Skip to main content
Menu
Warriors-Thunder Is The Strongest Conference Finals Matchup In Decades

All season long, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs seemed to be on an irreversible collision course. Both were historically dominant, and it seemed a practical certainty that they would eventually meet in a Western Conference finals for the ages. The Warriors did their part, beating the Portland Trail Blazers in five despite missing Steph Curry for the better part of the series.

But the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the Spurs, knocking San Antonio out of the playoffs with a 113-99 victory Thursday night. After all the buildup and all the hypotheticals, there will be no epic Warriors-Spurs showdown. And given the Spurs’ preseason hype — as well as the extraordinarily high level at which they operated all season long — San Antonio’s second-round ouster has to be seen as an historic disappointment. But NBA fans can take solace: The Thunder ought to give the Warriors a terrific series, too.

I have a point system for rewarding playoff success based on how far a team advances in the playoffs (and how many teams it had to beat out to get there). Every team starts with 33 initial points, or 1,000 times one-thirtieth (there are 30 teams, so at the beginning of the season every team has a 1-in-30 chance of winning the title). By qualifying for the postseason, a team increases its chances from 1-in-30 (3.3 percent) to 1-in-16 (6.25 percent), so it gets a 29-point bonus just for making the playoffs. And from there, it’s all about advancement. Win a first-round series? Get 63 bonus points. Advance to the conference finals? Tack on 125 more. Make it to the NBA Finals? Grab 250 points. And win the chip? That’s a 500-point prize. (This means the NBA champion gets exactly 1,000 points for its playoff run.)

paine-spurs-1a

So San Antonio only gets a playoff score of 125 points for all its trouble this season — an absurdly low total for a team with its +11.3 efficiency differential. Excluding the 2015-16 Spurs, teams with an efficiency margin of +10 or better since 1983-84 averaged a playoff score of 859.6, which is somewhere between a championship victory and a Finals loss. The previous low playoff score for a +10 team was 250, achieved by the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers, but even they managed to make the conference finals. San Antonio didn’t even get that far.


VIDEO: Neil Paine explains how disappointing the Spurs’ loss was


So NBA fans are going to be deprived of that long-anticipated Warriors-Spurs battle. But look on the bright side: the Warriors-Thunder series is also shaping up to be a classic. In fact, according to the pre-series Elo ratings (which estimate each team’s strength at any moment), it’s the single best-looking conference finals matchup since 1984:

YEAR CONF TEAM ELO RATING OPP. ELO RATING HARMONIC MEAN
2016 West Warriors 1800 Thunder 1734 1766
2012 West Spurs 1763 Thunder 1707 1735
1996 East Bulls 1802 Magic 1671 1734
1998 West Jazz 1717 Lakers 1745 1731
1986 East Celtics 1777 Bucks 1679 1727
2015 West Warriors 1787 Rockets 1670 1726
2001 West Spurs 1732 Lakers 1713 1722
2009 East Cavaliers 1765 Magic 1679 1721
1998 East Bulls 1758 Pacers 1680 1718
1997 East Bulls 1785 Heat 1647 1713
2002 West Kings 1709 Lakers 1713 1711
2009 West Lakers 1742 Nuggets 1680 1710
1993 East Knicks 1696 Bulls 1724 1710
2008 West Lakers 1724 Spurs 1690 1707
2010 East Magic 1782 Celtics 1636 1706
2003 West Spurs 1731 Mavericks 1681 1706
2005 West Suns 1719 Spurs 1689 1704
1992 East Bulls 1755 Cavaliers 1649 1701
1997 West Jazz 1755 Rockets 1648 1700
2011 East Bulls 1698 Heat 1697 1698
2000 West Lakers 1722 Blazers 1667 1694
2014 West Spurs 1707 Thunder 1682 1694
1996 West SuperSonics 1713 Jazz 1669 1691
1991 West Blazers 1696 Lakers 1681 1688
2011 West Mavericks 1698 Thunder 1678 1688
2010 West Lakers 1657 Suns 1718 1687
2013 West Spurs 1668 Grizzlies 1701 1684
2004 West Timberwolves 1674 Lakers 1684 1679
1989 West Lakers 1674 Suns 1684 1679
2013 East Heat 1773 Pacers 1592 1678
1985 West Lakers 1748 Nuggets 1613 1678
1992 West Blazers 1683 Jazz 1660 1671
2004 East Pacers 1678 Pistons 1662 1670
2005 East Heat 1696 Pistons 1641 1668
2008 East Celtics 1668 Pistons 1666 1667
1999 West Spurs 1711 Blazers 1624 1667
1989 East Pistons 1767 Bulls 1576 1666
1990 East Pistons 1686 Bulls 1646 1666
2006 West Mavericks 1713 Suns 1618 1664
1985 East Celtics 1680 76ers 1644 1662
1984 East Celtics 1685 Bucks 1638 1661
1987 East Celtics 1677 Pistons 1642 1659
1990 West Blazers 1670 Suns 1647 1659
1988 East Celtics 1633 Pistons 1677 1655
2007 West Spurs 1693 Jazz 1617 1654
2012 East Heat 1669 Celtics 1638 1653
1995 West Spurs 1711 Rockets 1599 1653
1994 East Knicks 1655 Pacers 1643 1649
2015 East Hawks 1614 Cavaliers 1679 1646
1994 West Rockets 1646 Jazz 1642 1644
1986 West Lakers 1682 Rockets 1605 1643
1999 East Pacers 1669 Knicks 1615 1641
2007 East Pistons 1665 Cavaliers 1617 1641
1991 East Bulls 1727 Pistons 1558 1638
1988 West Lakers 1648 Mavericks 1620 1634
2006 East Pistons 1653 Heat 1611 1632
1993 West Suns 1630 SuperSonics 1632 1631
1995 East Magic 1623 Pacers 1632 1627
1987 West Lakers 1716 SuperSonics 1532 1619
2001 East 76ers 1581 Bucks 1634 1607
2000 East Pacers 1619 Knicks 1595 1607
2002 East Nets 1580 Celtics 1613 1596
2003 East Pistons 1587 Nets 1596 1592
1984 West Lakers 1624 Suns 1557 1590
2014 East Pacers 1554 Heat 1626 1589
The best conference finals matchups, according to Elo

Since NBA adopted current playoff structure in 1984.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

(To give credit to series where both teams were strong — instead of cases where one of the teams propped up the overall average — I used the harmonic mean, a special type of average that penalizes low outliers.)

Not every series that looks great on paper ends up delivering on its promise. But with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook facing a healthy Steph Curry and the rest of the record-setting Dubs, nobody outside Texas should complain about the Spurs’ early absence from the playoffs.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments